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Updated: January 10th, 2013 10:43pm
Pelissero: Vikings have plenty of cap space, but big decisions loom

Pelissero: Vikings have plenty of cap space, but big decisions loom

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by Tom Pelissero
1500ESPN.com

Rick Spielman made clear on Thursday he intends to take the same, cautious approach towards free agency he did in his first year as the Minnesota Vikings' general manager.

But if the Vikings want to take a run at a particular free agent, even one with a significant price tag, Spielman will have the necessary salary cap resources at his disposal.

The Vikings will carry over a little more than $8 million in unused cap space from 2012, according to sources with access to NFL salary data. That's on top of the $1.643 million adjustment they didn't use last year from the Washington and Dallas cap penalties.

The NFL won't set the precise 2013 cap until shortly before free agency opens in March, but the league has advised teams it will be at or a little below $121 million -- virtually flat from $120.6 million this season.

Pending final accounting on incentives and escalators that will be done after the Super Bowl, the Vikings project to be about $12.3 million under their adjusted cap, putting them comfortably in the top half of the league in terms of space.

"We'll have cap room," Spielman said. "But again, you can have the cap room, but how are you going to utilize it? Are you going to utilize it to get your own guys done, or are you going to try to go into free agency?"

The Vikings' history suggests they'll do the former, with 14 players unsigned for the 2013 season and a strong group of potential 2014 free agents as well. And they can clear even more space if they cut or restructure one or more declining veterans.

The difference from last year, when the Vikings were around $10 million under the cap at this time, is those decisions aren't as clear-cut as dumping the dead weight of guards Steve Hutchinson and Anthony Herrera and cornerback Cedric Griffin.

Had they cleaned things out a year earlier -- rather than watching an old, expensive roster stumble to 3-13 -- the Vikings might rank closer to Cincinnati, Cleveland, Indianapolis, Miami and Tampa Bay, which all project to enter 2013 with $30 million or more in cap space.

Now, fresh off a 10-6 season and unexpected playoff berth, the Vikings will hold discussions about their in-house players next week before Spielman, coach Leslie Frazier, cap guru Rob Brzezinski and others move on to league-wide free agents and then to the draft and so on.

Here's a breakdown of some of what they'll discuss:

Free agents

In meetings on Monday, Spielman told all 14 of the Vikings' potential free agents the team is interested in having them back. But some are more pressing than the rest.

The Vikings want to keep continuity along the offensive line by extending Phil Loadholt, who probably had the best of his four NFL seasons at right tackle. It would be a surprise if he commands more than $5 million a year.

Fullback Jerome Felton made his first Pro Bowl and likely will angle for one of the NFL's most lucrative contracts at the position, although a modest $2.5 million a year would put him in that territory.

The only other full-time starters on the list of 10 potential unrestricted free agents are linebackers Jasper Brinkley and Erin Henderson. The Vikings may look for upgrades, though there is no obvious in-house succession plan, so one or both could return.

Receiver Jerome Simpson started 10 games, battled injuries and will be lucky to get the performance-based $2 million the Vikings gave him on a one-year deal. Safety Jamarca Sanford is an exceptional special teamer and figures to return.

The other potential UFAs are receiver Devin Aromashodu, linebacker Marvin Mitchell and offensive linemen Joe Berger, Geoff Schwartz and Troy Kropog.

Cornerbacks A.J. Jefferson and Marcus Sherels are restricted free agents and can be tendered at the lowest level. Safety Andrew Sendejo is an exclusive rights free agent, meaning he has no bargaining power and thus will be back if the Vikings want him.

Restructures

It's a good bet the Vikings will approach defensive tackle Kevin Williams about taking a pay cut, and Williams hinted this week he'd be willing to listen.

He has two years left on his contract with base salaries of $7 million and workout bonuses of $500,000 each season. Still productive but in obvious decline at age 32, Williams would be lucky to get half that on the open market.

Cornerback Antoine Winfield is older (35) but perhaps more likely to call the Vikings' bluff if they try to reduce his $7.25 million salary in the last year of his deal. He continued to play at a high level before a broken right hand hampered him late.

The Vikings must cut Winfield a check for $2.5 million in play-time incentives before the league year, and that'll count against their 2013 cap, too. (They'd otherwise be nearly $15 million under the cap. No other major accounting issues are anticipated.)

In both cases, Frazier is likely to stump for his veterans and the leadership they bring to a young locker room. There is no clear succession plan either, with Christian Ballard middling through two NFL seasons and Sherels a far inferior option as a slot corner.

Right end Jared Allen, 30, is due $14,280,612 in the last year of his contract, with a team-high cap number of $16,863,956. That's a lot to pay for the 12 sacks he recorded this past season while battling injuries, and he's scheduled to undergo shoulder surgery.

The Vikings made sure their cap could handle Allen's salary if necessary. But it wouldn't be a surprise if he is approached as well, perhaps about a short-term extension that would provide some cap relief.

Possible cuts

Tight end John Carlson, 28, was the Vikings' only significant UFA signing last season. But the only remaining guarantee on his five-year, $25 million contract is a $1.2 million portion of 2013 base salary that isn't fully protected until the start of the league year.

If the Vikings cut Carlson before that, they'd take a $4 million cap hit and not owe another dime, save for deferred signing bonus payments. Considering they've already paid him $7.9 million for one quiet season, though, he may get another chance.

Receiver Michael Jenkins, 30, is due a $2.425 million roster bonus on the fifth day of the league year, at which point the Vikings probably hope they've found an upgrade. Jenkins is in the last year of his restructured deal, and the cap hit would be only $666,668.

Future free agents

The intention was never for receiver Percy Harvin to play out the fifth and final year of his rookie contract. The Vikings generally address their top players' contracts a year early. Harvin knows that and expects a new deal.

Issues and all, Harvin was an early-season MVP candidate and may have his sights set on top-10 receiver money, which would put him in the $9 million annual range. But are the Vikings willing to make that type of commitment, and does Harvin want to be here?

If no deal can be worked out, it would only make sense for the Vikings to shop Harvin, with a draft pick or picks in the second or third round the probable return. First-round picks simply are too cheap and valuable to give up on top of a mega-contract.

He's not the only player who would otherwise be up after the 2013 season either. The list includes starters Allen, Winfield, left end Brian Robison, left guard Charlie Johnson (whose contract will void), punter Chris Kluwe and cornerback Chris Cook, plus three key backups, nose tackle Fred Evans, halfback Toby Gerhart and end Everson Griffen.

There is a ripple effect to some of those situations. For instance, the Vikings clearly don't want their top three ends to become free agents at the same time. If they decide to move on without Allen, they'll want to lock up Robison and/or Griffen sooner than later.

Tom Pelissero is Senior Editor and columnist for 1500ESPN.com. He hosts from 6 to 8 p.m. weeknights and co-hosts from 10 a.m. to noon Sundays on 1500 ESPN Twin Cities.
Email Tom | @TomPelissero | Tom Pelissero
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